This Christmas didn’t come from a store.

Or the oven, or my efforts, or even a big family gathering.

David and I elected to stay south this season. We had a chance to spend Christmas with our youngest daughter if we stayed in Arizona where she has a new job. She has certainly endured her share of lonely Christmases away from family the last few years. Our other kids are married and have children, so while we miss them, spending time here with Shea means she will have loving family waiting for her when she gets home from work tonight. Words can’t express how wonderful that will be.

I’d be lying if I said I haven’t fretted about this new kind of Christmas. For years the holiday has meant a BIG gathering of family and friends at the cabin in Alaska, snow crinkling outside/fire crackling inside, a huge dinner on a lengthened table, carols, and presents and all things Christmas-like. That was the normal.

I looked out my window in Arizona at Christmas lights wrapped around Saguaros and shiny Christmas balls perched on the tip of Century plants, and it looked pretty—but odd. Clearly I was going to have to search for new ways to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Then Came Christmas Eve

Last night for Christmas Eve we elected to visit a friend’s church for services instead of the mega church we usually go to. We figured the smaller church would have a lot of corporate carol singing, which we were longing for.

We sat down in the darkened sanctuary, nodding and smiling to people we’d never met. The pastor welcomed the crowd and the lights dimmed. A hidden smoke machine began filling the small room with a fog, laser lights whirled and danced designs through the air. A single musician with an electric guitar played a beautiful, energetic, rocking version of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.

I started to laugh to myself. It was beautiful, but not the group carols we thought we’d be getting. But look for the new ways to celebrate, right?

Still Searching for that Christmas Feeling

Later we arrived home and took Shea’s dog for a walk since she was working the closing shift last night. We walked past a neighborhood church and a sign outside said, “Candlelight Christmas Service, 5 p.m.”  It was 5:20 already.

“I want to go to that,” David unexpectedly announced.

I looked at him in surprise. “O.K.,” I said, taking the dog’s leash, “I’ll walk Ragnar home.”

A block later David texted me, “Come if you want.” “They have a string quartet.”

I honestly didn’t think I’d make it back in time for much of the service, but to my delight as I slipped in the back of the darkened sanctuary, I saw that only two of the five candles on the advent wreath were lit. There was still more than half of the service left!

A kind lady slipped up to me and handed me a tiny candle for later in the service. Several people looked my way and gave me big smiles. I was welcome.

The twinkle lights lit the sanctuary as the readers and choir went through the familiar Christmas story. They started in the Old Testament prophecies and went all the way through the Gospel according to Luke. “For unto us is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the King…”

A toddler voice near the front asked loudly during a quiet moment, “Are we done yet?”, and made all of us laugh.

An elderly voice in the row behind us made whispered comments all through service, both appropriate and inappropriate, her mental filter long dissolved, but her presence warmly welcomed.

We sang and prayed and eventually lit our candles and sang Silent Night, together as a group. The service ended with the Hallelujah chorus, all of us on our feet, joyful.

After the Carols—More Songs

Later as we walked together in the darkness back towards our house, we passed the house of a neighbor we’d met but barely knew. We could see through the windows several other neighbors were over, chatting by the fire. One of them we knew had lost her husband a week ago.

“We should carol them!” David said.

“uh…” I stammered.

“We should sing carols at their door,” he insisted.

“Well, o.k….” I began to walk to the door.

This was WAY out of my comfort zone, and a bit risky. Would our new neighbors see it in the Christmas Spirit we meant it to be, or would we be crashing their party?

We walked up to the door and began singing lustily, “We WISH you a Merry Christmas…”

The wife opened the door, the group watched us sing, all smiling. They invited us in for drinks. We ended up making eight new friends and exchanging phone numbers for get-togethers after the holidays.

And Many More

This new way to celebrate the holiday is taking shape. I’m learning to reach out to my neighbor, be brave enough to risk embarrassment, and to love people I’ve never met. I’m learning to love during loss, give comfort while giving joy, an honestly learning what making Jesus the focus looks and feels like. I still miss the big family gatherings, and I have to believe that there will be more Christmases like that in the future. But for now I’m learning a new way to celebrate.

And it is good.